I left early in the morning, but it was late afternoon when I arrived at Mary’s hometown.
It was a somewhat ambiguous time to visit without prior notice.
‘I should try tomorrow.’
Since many places combined a pub and an inn, I went to the square first. The square was small and charming, perhaps due to the size of the village.
As I walked towards the pub, looking around after descending from the square, I heard someone calling my name.
“You really came.”
Mary approached me with a wide smile and hugged me lightly. As she let go of the hug, she took my hand.
“You haven’t had dinner yet, right? Let’s go to my house.”
Nodding, I took her bags, full in both hands, and followed her towards her home.
Her house was in a secluded place. Upon arrival, I guided Guadang into Mary’s yard and helped her unload the bags.
As we approached the door, a middle-aged man, strikingly similar to Mary, came out.
“Mary, even if you’re bringing groceries, have your younger sibling do it.”
He was taking the bags Mary had carried when he noticed me.
“Who’s the friend next to you?”
“That’s Miss Nelly I told you about.”
“Ah, the rumored manager! Nice to meet you. I’m Mary’s father. Feel free to call me Uncle Jackson.”
The middle-aged man greeted me and took the luggage I was carrying.
“Yes, Uncle Jackson. The rumored estate manager. Although now an aide, it seems the rumors persist.”
Playfully introducing myself, he chuckled and guided me into the house.
Mary expressed her desire to treat me with food she made and went into the kitchen.
Led by Uncle Jackson, I was introduced to Mary’s siblings, mother, and grandparents. Mary’s family warmly welcomed me, seating me in the most comfortable spot, and asked various questions.
As we joyfully conversed, Mary’s voice called from the kitchen.
“Everyone, please come for dinner.”
Even after finishing the meal amid a cheerful atmosphere, we gathered as if we had known each other for a long time, sharing stories.
As the night grew late, we finally went up to Mary’s room.
“I’m sorry. We don’t have any other available rooms.”
“No need to apologize! It’s great. I’ve never shared a room with a friend before.”
Mary expressed her relief and lent me pajamas.
It felt like I was visiting a real friend’s house. Perhaps because of this, even after lying down side by side on the bed, the conversation didn’t seem to end.
“How long has it been since Mary came home?”
“It’s been two years. And this is the first time I’ve stayed down here for such a long period.”
It was understandable, given that servants usually didn’t get extended vacations.
Especially since Leonel probably didn’t understand the importance of taking a break, there might be others who hadn’t gone back to their hometown.
“When I get up there, I’ll make sure everyone gets to go down to their hometown at least once a year.”
“Won’t that get you two into a fight?”
“Then I’ll make sure to win!”
Playfully clenching my fists, Mary burst into laughter. Following her lead, I recalled the Mary I saw today.
“It was a bit strange.”
As Mary turned towards me, lying on her side, she had a curious expression as if asking what was strange.
“Because you seemed so much more relaxed and natural than when you were in the Duke’s castle. Oh! That doesn’t mean you looked awkward at the castle.”
“I know what you mean. It’s probably true, right? This is my hometown, my home, the place I’ll always come back to.”
Her every word carried warmth.
Unlike me, who would have to rebuild from scratch if driven out of where I worked, she was different. It struck me how having a place to go when nothing else remains can make a person resilient.
“That’s right. So it’s not a joke; I want to make sure everyone can meet their families at least once a year. I understand how precious it is because I have nowhere to return to.”
Mary, at first looking puzzled at my words, soon smiled.
“You must have a place to go too, Miss Nelly.”
Her eyes were filled with a spring-like warmth.
I saw various things in her gaze – the kind couple who always provided me with food whenever I passed, the supervisors who supported and believed in whatever I did, Frer, who became my first friend, the warm look of admiration from young Lizzy, and the butler who looked at me as if seeing a girl.
From the friendly Levance to the awkward Arette, and most importantly, the eyes of Leonel, which couldn’t hide the depth of affection.
His embrace, large hands, and tender kisses came to mind vividly, bringing an involuntary smile.
Suddenly, the longing for all of it became overwhelming and unbearable.
* * *
An assistant approached, trembling, and handed a report to Levance.
“It’s a report on the design of the road leading across the river.”
Though he accepted it, Levance was puzzled.
“Shouldn’t this be presented to His Grace?”
“Yes. But, lately, it’s been frightening to go into the office… Would it be possible for you to deliver it when you go, Mr. Levance?”
Levance swallowed a sigh that reached up to his chin and nodded.
Upon hearing this, the assistant’s face instantly brightened. He bowed 90 degrees in gratitude and swiftly returned to his place.
Levance looked down at the numerous reports piled on his desk with a bewildered expression.
‘I’m scared too.’
After Nelly left, Leonel immersed himself in work.
He barely ate or slept, just like when he first emerged from the battlefield. His words decreased significantly, and the atmosphere became as sharp and chilly as an ice pick.
The atmosphere was so ominous that just entering the hallway with the office made your spine chill, and your hair stand on end.
Because of this, everyone hesitated to report to Leonel. Among them, only Levance, who had spent a long time with Leonel, could face those bloodshot eyes without crying, running away, or fainting.
Barely not crying or fainting. Even that was only possible because he tried his best to avoid facing Leonel.
‘Is there anyone else who can go instead?’
He searched the office for a sacrificial lamb.
There was someone, relatively unafraid of Leonel and capable of standing up to him. With a broad smile, he approached Lizzy.
“Lizzy, could you go instead of me?”
Lizzy, who had her head bowed, calculating the accounts, lifted her head like a ghost rising from the grave.
Levance, meeting her wide-eyed and authentic gaze, closed his mouth and shook his head.
“No, please continue what you were doing.”
Lizzy ducked her head again, as if to bury her face in the desk, then snapped up.
“Miss Nelly will come back, right? What if she doesn’t? She hasn’t even sent a letter to the Duke yet. Could something have happened?”
“…Lizzy. It’s only been five days since Nelly took a break. She said she’d write when she arrived, so it’s natural not to have heard anything yet.”
“Ugh! I haven’t repaid her kindness yet! If it weren’t for Miss Nelly, I would be…”
Levance silently stepped back.
On the day Nelly left, he unknowingly got caught up in a conversation and had to endure being stuck for a whopping four hours.
“Hahaha. Well, it seems it’s time for me to go present a report to His Grace.”
He mumbled to himself without anyone asking and quickly left the room.
Holding the piled-up reports and account books as if they were eating bitter herbs, he departed with a sigh.